In August of 1976, while working as a reporter for The Washington Post, I found myself in Tehran during what would turn out to be the final years of the Iranian monarchy. It was clear then that Mohammad Reza Shah, only the second and the last of the Pahlavi dynasty, was in difficulty. His so-called “White Revolution,” which tried to modernize Iran quickly, was meeting resistance from a deeply conservative public. Religious leaders, secular democrats, and students were restless under his monarchical dictatorship. His secret police, the Savak, were jailing and torturing dissidents. What was not clear then was that the ally the US had installed in order to hold power in the Persian Gulf was about to collapse. It happened so quickly that even the forces that brought the Shah down were taken by surprise.
For a quarter of a century after the Americans and British organized a coup against the secular-nationalist leader Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, the Shah had been America’s man in the Persian Gulf, which American leaders saw as strategically vital because it produces the one essential commodity for the industrial world. In 1973, when Saudi Arabia embargoed oil to the United States, it was the Shah who supplied fuel for US Navy ships then in the Gulf. During the Nixon years the Shah was cast in the role of America’s surrogate and partner in preserving Western, anti-Soviet interests in the region; he received large amounts of advanced military equipment from the US. In 1976 you could fly on El Al directly from Tel Aviv to Tehran. Until the clerics came to power in 1979, both Iran and Israel found it useful to have informal diplomatic relations because both felt threatened by Iraq. As it still does, Israel sought friends among the non-Arab countries on the periphery of the Middle East.
Now another quarter-century has passed, a very grim one for Iran as well as Western interests in the Gulf. The takeover of the American embassy in 1979 and the 444-day humiliation of American diplomats ruined relations with the United States to this day. The advent of a religiously based regime, equally or more tyrannical than the Shah’s, has changed the pattern of power in the Middle East. The regime of the ayatollahs has supported Hezbollah and other terrorists in the region, and it is accused of harboring members of al-Qaeda, which it denies.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the coup that deposed Mossadegh and the forces allied with him struggling to create a democracy in Iran. The coup set the Shah on a course that was to end so ignobly for him and the United States twenty-six years later. According to Stephen Kinzer in his book All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror,
It is not far-fetched to draw a line from Operation Ajax [the CIA’s code name for the coup] through the Shah’s repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution …